Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance

Sunrider Academy is a spin-off from the Sunrider series. Set in an alternate universe, Sunrider Academy reimagines the main characters as high school students. The Sunrider series is a collection of visual novels powered by the Ren’Py engine, with gameplay sections interspaced with VN storytelling segments. Where the original game was a turn-based strategy game featuring intense battles between starships and mecha, Sunrider Academy is a time/stat management dating sim.

I don’t play dating sims, and visual novels only rarely. If not for its tangential connection to the Sunrider series I wouldn’t even have picked up Sunrider Academy. That said, I enjoyed my overall experience with the game. But it could have been so much better.

In Sunrider Academy, you play the role of Kayto Shields, Vice President of the Student Council. In the beginning of his second year, he promises his kid sister Maray that he would get a girlfriend. When he goes to school, his childhood friend Ava Crescrentia, President of the Student Council, charges Kayto with turning around three sports clubs in danger of being disbanded by the school. And, Kayto has to keep his grades up to retain his position. The player must juggle Kayto’s studies, club affairs and love life over an increasingly hectic school year.

The common route, spanning the first few months, is chock-full of in-jokes and moments of hilarity. When you choose a girl to pursue, the humour gives way to drama, teenage angst, and romance.

Or tries to.

While Sunrider Academy delivers competent stories for all four routes, it is hamstrung by its Japanese influence. Sunrider Academy relies on a number of well-established VN, anime and manga tropes: the overachieving childhood friend, the moeblob, the genki girl, the emotionless girl, conveniently contrived clumsiness leading to predictable perverse positions, and so on. Tropes are not bad in of themselves, but the developers relied far too heavily on them to carry the plot instead of building on them to build better stories.

To illustrate this, I’m going to break down the romance routes in the story. Warning: unmarked spoilers ahead!

Chigara Ashada

I’m a pessimist, so I’ll start with the worst route: Chigara’s. Chigara is the captain of the science club. She’s a genius, but she’d rather be a baker. She is also meek, innocent and girlish, the very definition of a moeblob.

The conflict in her route is driven by her twin sister, Lynn. Where Chigara is a genius, Lynn is not. Where Chigara is all sunshine and bubbles, Lynn is broody and depressive. Chigara just wants to get along, but Lynn wants to take everything from her sister. After all, Chigara is the favored daughter — created by their parents to be the perfect girl.

As the story progresses, Lynn tries to impersonate Chigara and steal Kayto from her. Worse, Chigara gives in to her sister’s whims, allowing Lynn to take her place in the Academy. It gets to the point where Kayto can’t tell who is who anymore. [To be honest, neither could I; somehow Kayto could read them better than me.] This could have been the setup for a psychological thriller.

Instead, the story is resolved in an extremely convenient fashion: as Chigara coaches Lynn to act like her, the sisters find common ground to bond, and resolve their differences. By the story’s end, they have made up and stopped impersonating each other.

Heartwarming, certainly, but with one problem: Kayto had nothing to do with it.

Throughout Chigara’s route, Kayto becomes increasingly passive, focusing solely on his club responsibilities and studies. The entire resolution occurs off-screen, delivered only by exposition. The final reconciliation was also unsatisfying: it’s hard to imagine that Kayto would suddenly welcome Chigara back into his life after the sisters put him through so much emotional stress. The more likely and realistic outcome would be Kayto cutting ties with the Asadas permanently.

This is a romance story, though, and there must be a happy ending. There’s a simple fix for this: have Kayto refuse to give up on the Asadas, and instead push them towards reconciliation. Have him engage both sisters throughout the route, and convince them to make up. This makes him involved in his story, giving agency to the player. This would be far more emotionally satisfying than simply having Chigara say they made up.

Ava Crescentia

Ava is a perfect embodiment of the overachieving  childhood friend: she is the top student of Sunrider Academy, the President of the Student Council, and a stickler for the rules. She is cold and harsh towards everybody, demanding every student to obey every regulation, no matter how inane. Her default expression is a frown, and she almost never smiles during the story sections. She bosses around everyone she meets, earning the ire of the entire student body, and picks out Kayto for particularly difficult duties (taking charge of the problem clubs is just the beginning!).

So why is there a romance?

Kayto’s motivation is obvious. Being neighbours, they have a shared history stretching back years. Plus, Ava possesses certain ‘assets’ no hotblooded male will fail to notice. But Ava? There is no hint that she is interested in Kayto, or even respects him as a person. She is almost always seen giving him more work or berating him or otherwise treating him as an extra pair of hands to clear the never-ending pile of paperwork.

The moment she took the opportunity to make out with Kayto came as a shock, to him and me. She had been nothing but harsh and domineering, and he in turn (mostly) placative and resigned. Kayto himself thinks she sees him as little more than an insect. Why is she suddenly interested in him? Why is he interested in her?

Near the end of the game, she hints that she came to love Kayto because he had always supported her. But that doesn’t ring true with me. Loyalty and support are hallmarks of friendship; romance requires more than that.

The Kayto-Ava dynamic just isn’t convincing enough. Instead of a hard-won love, I see the classic signs of emotional abuse. At the very least, I see Kayto being a hen-pecked husband and an unhappy marriage.

To make this romance work, the route needs two major improvements. There needs to be more signposting of Ava’s intentions and emotions. She has a sugar and ice personality, but the writer focused on the ‘ice’ aspect to the exclusion of ‘sugar’. The script needs to make her attraction to him more obvious from the start, giving Kayto hope that he has a chance.

As for Kayto, he needs to be stronger and far more decisive. He comes off as a Typical High School Boy, which is the wrong approach to take. For instance, after a key moment of intimacy, he said, “Well, after we did that, I thought we were going out.” This comes across as wishy-washy and utterly cringeworthy. A better line would be, “After doing that, why wouldn’t we be going out?” This signals strength and places the ball in Ava’s court, forcing her to examine why she did what she did and to face her growing attraction to Kayto. Likewise, he should stand up to Ava whenever she makes idiotic decisions instead of quietly following orders and getting into worse trouble.

Women like Ava only respect people as strong as they are — any less and they simply will not give the time of day to, much less consider as a romantic prospect. To make this story work, Kayto has to step up his game, and Ava has to show more vulnerability.

Asaga Oakrun

This route is a marked improvement over the other two. Instead of high drama or contempt, this route is filled with passion. Asaga is the very model of a Japanese genki girl, and she drags Kayto right into her orbit. He mans up and proves himself worthy of his affections.

Eventually. The weakest point of the story is in the middle, when Kayto finds himself overwhelmed. Asaga becomes increasingly intrusive, and her personality leads to clashes with other clubs and the Student Council, causing Kayto more trouble. It all comes to a head during a climactic Student Council meeting (puns very much intended), and Kayto decides to break things off with her.

Fortunately for all involved, the lovers reconcile quickly. But a bit too quickly for my tastes. Kayto stomps angrily away from the relationship, Asaga apologises in tears, and they make up.The remaining drama in the route is due to external shenanigans, which reinforce their feelings for each other — but not necessarily how they act. What I would have liked to see is how they influence each other for the better: Asaga becomes less impulsive and puts in more effort in paperwork and studies, while Kayto lets himself relax and be more spontaneous. This is only vaguely hinted at the penultimate story section, the day before the Most Definitively Final Exams.


Sola in this game is a mysterious girl adopted by the head priest of the city shrine. She speaks with a flat register, but uses formal and sophisticated vocabulary. Unlike the other routes, this one is tied intrinsically to the main Sunrider storyline. This Sola is in danger of being erased from the universe, and Kayto must find a way to save her.

This route was the route released as the public demo, and the devs clearly put in a lot of time polishing it. The route mixes moments of drama, intrigue and tenderness. Unlike the other routes, this Kayto isn’t wishy-washy or indecisive: he swears to save Sola, refuses to give up on her no matter how hard she tries to convince him to abandon her, seeks solutions, and at the climax confronts a de facto god — and wins. Likewise, Sola also shows character growth — though I have to say, it’s easier to show character growth for someone already established as a flat, if eccentric, girl.

This route would have been magnificent, but for the ending. It boils down to Kayto telling the abovementioned god to give Sola back, and the god agreeing just like that. There is no drama, no sense of resistance, no insight into the god’s motives or actions. It just happens. A far more satisfying ending would have Kayto debating the god — and winning. A crowning moment of awesome is a far better fit for the game than a deus ex machina.

Gameplay and Story Segregation

Sunrider Academy is a stat management game, and the gameplay layer is painfully segregated from the story elements. During the girls’ routes, there are moments when the characters are betrayed or in emotional distress. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t affect the stat building sections. Kayto can continue to improve the stats of a club led by a girl who hurt him as though nothing had happened. This is, frankly, quite jarring — but this may be due to engine limitations.

Throughout the game, you are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the girls. You can give them gifts, engage in conversation with them, or attempt to charm and flirt with them. During the common route, this is key to raising their affections, which unlocks their individual route. But afterwards, save for the girl you’re pursuing, this mechanic has exactly no impact on the story that I can tell.

More than that, there seems to be no penalty for flirting with or charming a girl who isn’t your girlfriend. None of the girls show signs of jealousy, and there is no impact on your chosen girlfriend’s affections. When you think hard about it, it kills immersion.

Not for Dating Sim Fans

The developers took a gamble by jumping into an entirely new genre for their spinoff. While I recognise their courage, I think they have much to learn about writing convincing romance stories. In romance VNs, players want to see the hero and heroine(s) grow together, to be given a sense of agency through meaningful decisions, and to experience a realistic facsimile of romance. This requires excellent storytelling and a keen insight into human nature beyond faithful recreations of anime and manga tropes. VNs are novels: they live and die by their characters and writing, and the writing here isn’t up to scratch. Further, I think the devs could have tried to close the gap between gameplay and storytelling, improving overall immersion.

Ultimately, if you’re not a fan of dating sims or stat management games, Sunrider Academy offers repetitive clicking through huge swathes of the game on easy or waifu mode to unlock story content that isn’t quite up to par. Quite fortuitously, on Steam it’s currently being offered at a 60% discount. But to properly enjoy the game, you need a walkthrough or risk missing key events necessary to propel the game.

I think Sunrider Academy will appeal mainly to people who enjoyed the main series. The writing isn’t as tight as I would like it to be, but fans would appreciate the humor and references. Gamers or VN fans seeking a plausible romance should look elsewhere, or at least wait until the game is on sale.


Cultural Appropriation Enriches Everything

Lionel Shriver gave a speech critiquing the concept of cultural appropriation, leading to this temper tantrum filled with politically correct whining. I’m amused that people think ‘cultural appropriation’ is an intellectually honest concept.

What is cultural appropriation? From Shriver’s speech:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

But let’s go deeper into progressive-speak and take Everyday Feminism‘s definition of cultural appropriation. (Emphasis theirs)

In short: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.

But that’s only the most basic definition.

A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.

It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.

Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too.

But marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.

Even with this more specific definition, cultural appropriation is nonsense. Culture is intangible. It is a set of ideas and practices. If a stronger party adopts elements of culture from a weaker party, the weaker party is not in any way further diminished. If anything, the weaker party spreads its memes and ideas to the stronger party, giving it influence over the latter.

How is this not a subversion of the dominant culture? How does this undermine the weaker culture?

The concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ suggests that there is a deliberate effort to steal cultural ideas, but this is clearly not so. Is there an equivalent of an Archchancellor of Cultural Warfare who decrees that the people of his empire should unanimously adopt the practices of a given oppressed people in a certain year? Is there a grand conspiracy that decides which cultures to promote and which cultures to ignore?

No. It’s simply people deciding to adopt the ideas of another culture after finding them useful to their lives.

Looking at the three concepts of culture promulgated by Everyday Feminism, you will see that they are saying that dominant cultures are evil for taking ideas from a weaker culture and for imposing those ideas on a weaker culture. In other words: heads I win, tails you lose. The only way to win is to not play — or to be a self-designated victim.

As an idea to grapple with reality, ‘cultural appropriation’ is intellectually bankrupt. It is simply an excuse for an arbitrarily-designated minority to point and shriek at an arbitrarily-designated majority under the guise of cultural protection. It is a tool to justify affirmative action of the basest kind: to tear down or promote someone else’s work not because of its merits and demerits, but solely on the basis of identity. It is a weapon that self-declared ‘progressives’ use to erase the vibrancy of humanity.

In Singapore, the local patois is Singlish,  English organized along Chinese grammatical rules with loanwords from Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. Singaporean cuisine is a fusion of every culture that has passed through the land. You can find Chinese selling nasi lamak, Indians cooking Western food, Malays preparing curry chicken, and a vast array of restaurants offering food to suit every palate, be it Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, vegetarian, even kosher food. Peranakan people are of Chinese descent who settled in the Malay Archipelego, speak a creole of Malay and Hokkien, have Chinese religious customs and adopt Malay fashions, and developed a distinct cuisine. Among the locals and foreigners who pass through Singapore, English (or Singlish) is the language that bridges everybody.

The world would be a far poorer place if people refused to adopt ideas from different cultures.

Where writers are concerned, the first thing they should do is focus on the story. Not the PC harpies shrieking about cultural appropriation, not the elitists who sneer at anything that isn’t capital-L literature, not the social justice warriors who project their narcissism and inadequacies on everyone.

If you’re a writer writing about a culture you’re unfamiliar with, you have to do your research. You have to capture nuances of behaviour, the idiosyncrasies of language, fashion sense, cuisines, social hierarchies, everything that marks a given culture. To do anything less is a disservice to the story.

Dressing up the setting of your story in foreign clothes but making everyone sound like you doesn’t enrichen the story. Kubo and the Two Strings, for instance, has the dressings of Japan, but everyone speaks and acts like Americans, and the weapons and armour are period-inappropriate. This is not cultural appropriation, though — this is simply a failure to do the research, or else a deliberate stylistic choice that detracts and distracts from the story.

Writing about a foreign culture is a road to growth and empathy — the opposite of SJWs who would demand that everyone shut up and stay in their little boxes. Done right, works about different cultures contribute to the wonder and the majesty of art — the opposite of SJWs who would rather everything be reduced to grey, flavorless mush. Stories of different peoples allow readers to see through the eyes of others — the opposite of SJWs whose insistence on arbitrary identities require that everyone become soulless, narcissistic blobs incapable of empathising with anyone.

If you like an idea from a different culture, don’t be afraid to use it. Never let the harpies keep you from greatness.

After the Hugos

Vox Day wrote excellent write-ups about the Hugo Awards here and here. Taken together, they are a veteran’s perspective on the state of internal politics in science fiction and fantasy.

I don’t understand why Social Justice Warriors make such a big deal about the Hugos.It’s a meaningless status symbol. A little trophy doesn’t put food on the table, and in recent decades it is no indication of merit. As a child, every award winning SFF work I picked up was so utterly boring it turned me off from the field. Even today, I read far more thrillers and non-fiction than SFF post-1980. Where a plebeian genre writer like me is concerned, there are only two objective indications of a successful SFF story: honest reader reviews and overall sales.

Rabid Puppies, and to a lesser the Sad Puppies, have demonstrated that the Hugo Awards are irrelevant. Last year, the SJWs voted to burn down most of the Hugos than to pick a Puppy nominee. This year, the SJWs chose non-controversial picks over No Award — never mind that other finalists are objectively (in terms of sales figures, reviews and achievements) more deserving of the award, such as Jim Butcher or Toni Weisskopf. The Hugos will soon be changing their voting rules in response to the Puppies — no doubt to shut out the Puppies and only the Puppies.

The awards are so irrelevant that in a nation obsessed with firsts, nobody cares that I’m the first Singaporean to ever be nominated for the Hugos. And I don’t blame anyone. A small group of people played kingmaker, forced the SFF-SJWs and their allies to react to their strategy, AND recommended choices that more accurately reflect reader interests or literary accomplishments than the actual awardees. This tells any reasonable person that the Hugo Awards, ostensibly to represent the finest in SFF, are broken.

A Hugo Award is a hollow award.

I spent more time, energy and brainpower planning and preparing breakfast this morning than I did on the Hugos this year. Somehow, a tale I wrote, itself nothing more than a testbed for technologies and tactics like the Takao, made it all the way to the nominations. While I’m pleasantly surprised and grateful, I lose nothing by not winning the Award, and gain nothing but bragging rights by winning it. I have no stake in the Hugos and no reason to care, now or in the future. Likewise, my target audience doesn’t care about the Hugos or other awards, only whether a story is worth time and money.

I measure literary success not by trophies but by stories. Flashpoint: Titan is only the beginning: coming up next is The Burning of Worlds.

On the Radar: Children of a Dead Earth

Children of a Dead Earth is the most promising science fiction computer game I have seen since Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It tries to do for the genre what I attempt to do with my forays into science fiction: to create a compelling vision of tomorrow based on real-world science.

Storywise, the game is fairly unremarkable (at least from what the developer has released so far). In the not-too-distant future, humans have colonised the Solar System. Two or more factions come to blows. The player, representing one of these factions, commands a constellation of warships to defeat the enemy across the breadth of inhabited space. While CDE is basically a Real Time Strategy game IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE, where the game truly shines is its dedication to realism.

The developer, Q Switched Productions, boasts that Children of a Dead Earth is the most scientifically accurate computer game ever made — and lives up to the claim. Unlike other space games, the game uses an actual N-body simulator, allowing precise modelling of orbital phenomena. On the developer blog, the developer explores the science behind the game. Everything from propulsion to nuclear power to weapons to ammunition to radiators is described and discussed in painstaking detail without losing the reader in an avalanche of technical jargon. That alone is worth the time to read through the archives.

Every ship, every component and every weapon is fully customizable based on scientific principles. You can do everything from deciding the armature material for coilguns to optimizing the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor to the type of armour your ship is made of — but you must have a solid understanding of physics to do it properly. You can, for instance, design and mount a 100 MW violet laser, but you must be prepared to shed the ferocious amount of heat it would generate, figure out how to power the rest of your ship, and mount secondary weapons to complement the laser. As the developer points out, even a laser as powerful as that isn’t a doomsday weapon, merely a long-range weapon with a specific tactical niche. If you have mass or cost constraints, you have to compromise somewhere.

Delta-v and orbital mechanics play a critical role in the game. The cunning space captain will employ maneuvering burns that will place his squadron in a superior position, force the enemy to expend his delta-v reserves, and minimise his own propellant expenditure. Ploughing through swarms of drones and clouds of missiles, then charging straight into the guns of the enemy ships in a death-or-glory attack is a surefire recipe for disaster. Better to trick the enemy into wasting his long-range weapons, knock out critical components from a distance, then close in for the kill. Or, even better, force the enemy to expend all his propellant, leaving him dead in space, without even firing a shot.

This dedication to realism means that a game like this will never be published by any of the big game companies. Take a look at these gameplay videos.



The game won’t hold the player’s hand. It won’t dumb anything down. The graphics look like they came from the late 90s or early 2000s, but they are adequate for gameplay — and truthfully, there is something hypnotic about watching streams of tracers trace an arc around a planet to strike a faraway target. Instead of focusing on flashy visuals, slick presentation, shiny doodads or impossible-but-cool special effects, the developer concentrated on realism and natural outgrowth from scientific principles.

CDE does not appeal to the lowest common denominator. It demands the player to live up to it. At the same time, it can teach the player a thing or two about science — made abundantly clear in the developer blog. It’s not an AAA game, nor is it meant to be; it’s for the hardcore geeks who’ve been waiting for a realistic space war sim.

In this sense, CDE is very much like Kerbal Space Program. They aren’t the prettiest games around, but they are intellectually rigorous and grounded in physics. These games aren’t just entertainment; they will inspire the next generation of scientists and sci fi creators.

In all honesty, If I had stumbled across the developer blog before writing FLASHPOINT: TITAN, the story would have been written much differently. I can see the developer blog joining Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto as the go-to resource for hard scence fiction spaceships.

You can find the game’s Steam page here. The community has greenlit the game and it’s expected for a 2016 release. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. After all, for most people, this is entertainment — but for me, it’s for research.


Female Characters are not Men with Breasts

The stench of social justice is strong with this piece.

Which is why Rat Queens is so damn important: it’s essentially a D&D campaign driven by women. The heart of the story follows the eponymous mercenary team, a brash quartet who know what they want and just go for it…


On the off-chance that you don’t relate to any of the Queens, good news! There’s a slew of other ladies to love and admire! Lola is the muscular second-in-command in the city guard; Braga is a death-defying lady orc built like a tank; Tizzie is Hannah’s very blonde and very feminine friend-turned-chief rival; Faeyri is Betty’s punk elf girlfriend.

Even some of the baddies are women! “Old Lady” Bernadette is a merchant, tired of the Queens constantly destroying her businesses, and the team has to face down a troll army led by a pissed off girlfriend (after they killed her boyfriend earlier in the story—hey, the dude was trying to smash them all into paste! It was absolutely self-defense!)…


And, let’s not forget, some killer representation. Not only is there an amazing preponderance of ladies, there’s also people of color (in a fantasy world! Because if you can have dwarves and dragons, you sure as hell can have black people) and LGBT+ representation (Betty’s a lesbian and Braga’s transgender)…


With so many of us ladies demanding better representation and hungry for anything starring women, the network that adapted Queens would also be guaranteed a huge female viewership, which is nothing to sneeze at. We’re half the population, folks, and we deserve to have more loud and proud heroines to admire in our media.

When I read fantasy, I think of sweeping landscapes, intricate magic systems, sprawling empires, clashes of cultures and civilisations, and tales of good and evil. The best fantasy stories should tell readers something timeless about human nature. Spending one in six paragraphs talking up women and diversity tells me that either the story is incredibly bland, or that the writer is incredibly solipsistic. I suspect both.

Look at the character descriptions.

Hannah is the mage: an aggressive, tattooed, and confrontational lady who would like nothing better than to pick a fight with the entire world. Her parents are necromancers, so she has a direct line to the next world.

‘Aggressive, tattooed and confrontational’ are masculine traits. There are women who are like that, and all of the ones I’ve met who embody those traits are fundamentally broken. People who ‘would like nothing better than to pick a fight with the entire world’ usually get their wish–and usually die soon after. There is always a bigger fish, and if you spend your life fighting everybody you meet, the bigger fish will oblige. People with this character trait aren’t badass — they’re flawed. They are ticking time bombs with a sharply limited life expectancy.

Violet is the resident dwarf and swordswoman. She’s got a chip on her shoulder re: her culture and family and shaves her beard as a statement. She’s also the most heavily-armored of the Queens and has a driving need to prove herself.

Body hair is political only to feminists. This seems to be an inversion of modern-day feminism’s obssession with keeping armpit and leg hair. This tells me nothing about the character, only the creator’s hamfisted attempts at pushing a political message. Further, people with a ‘driving need to prove’ themselves by taking up an inherently violent profession and deliberately entering combat tend to be men with an excess of testosterone.

Further, being the resident swordswoman, she should know better than to mount swords on her back, and she would understand the virtues of not carrying so much gear that they could catch on anything, interfere with her actions and slow her down. The character designs tell me that the creator chose style over substance — as expected of third-rate stories.

Betty is fondly referred to as a “smidgen” by her teammates; she’s pretty clearly a halfling/hobbit, and because of her size and speed, she’s often the thief (when they need information) or a projectile weapon (in a melee). Betty’s typically high on a lethal mixture of magic mushrooms and sugary candy and is pretty laid back as a result.

In other words, she’s a drug addict. That makes her a liability in the real world. Not badass.

And size and speed does not a thief make. Real thieves are stealthy and smooth. Fast and unnatural actions draw attention, and attention leads to a lethal dose of metal poisoning. A real thief would be invisible in plain sight, unseen and unknown until after the job. A good thief would stay unknown well after the job — quite the opposite of the Rat Queens’ reputation. (See The Thief, the Burke series, and other crime noir stories for more realistic representations of actual thieves.)

Further, ‘(small) size and speed’ do not a good projectile weapon user make. Longbows, for instance, require immense upper body strength. Crossbows may need less strength than longbows, but longbows have a faster rate of fire. Slings, darts and javelins are propelled by the user’s muscles; speed comes from body mechanics and proper application of bodyweight. If we’re talking fantasy weapons not reliant on gunpowder or magic, strength matters. So does size–the larger the better. Not the other way around.

Dee is the group’s cleric and healer. An atheist with divine abilities, thanks to being raised in a cult that worships a flying squid—think Lovecraft meets the Flying Spaghetti Monster—she’s also the homebody of the Queens. While the others love nothing more than a rousing bar fight, Dee would prefer to stay home with a big book.

Now this does not make sense. Clerics are not inherently powerful; they channel the power of their god(s) based on their long-standing relationship with the divine. In harder fantasy settings, clerics and other believers must act in ways commensurate with the morals and creed of the power they worship, or suffer the consequences. How can a person who does not believe in gods draw on the power of gods when she will not form a relationship with something she does not believe in, much less embody the values of that greater power? Being raised in a flying squid cult is not enough; by being an atheist she repudiates the squid, severing her relationship with it. By drawing on the power of the squid, or any other divinity, she necessarily forms a relationship with a divine being, which means she must confront her atheism. And the divine power, in turn, will pay more attention to her and her behaviour — and wonder why she still will not believe in it. At the very least, she must resolve the question of whether she can have a relationship with something she does not believe in. You do not get to be fashionably atheist and still be blessed with the power of a god without having to reconcile the two.

Berry sums up the Rat Queens as such:

A team of hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, fun-loving, totally asskicking female mercenaries.

‘Hard-drinking’ and ‘foul-mouthed’ are masculine characteristics. They are the traits of men and male soldiers I have been around. The female soldiers I have served with tend to be less hard-drinking and foul-mouthed than the men, and indeed, in an interview with Pioneer magazine, male sailors recounted reminding each other to watch their language after female sailors were assigned to the ship. The presence of women make men gentlemen; they should not make the world even more masculine.

The most damning flaw with Rat Queens is that I don’t see women. I see men with breasts. They act like men, talk like men, drink like men and fight like men. Nothing in their described behaviour sets them apart from the male soldiers and adventurers I have known. There is nothing about, say, compassion, diplomacy, morality, relationship-building, solidarity or any other traits that women tend to employ more than men.

At the same time, the Rat Queens get away with things men will not, because they are women.

Due to their wild partying, they’re on the mayor’s naughty list in their current home base of Palisade and have frequent brushes with the law (good thing Hannah can usually seduce the Captain of the Guard and get them all off “on good behavior”).

Real mercenaries and operators know that you cannot afford to alienate your home community, especially the movers and shakers.Men who do what the Rat Queens do will quickly find themselves arrested, imprisoned and exiled. Or executed. At the very least, they will have to deal with the wrath and resentment of the businesses they bust up, and the constant attention of local law enforcement. But the Rat Queens get to get away with destructive behaviour because of Hannah’s feminine wiles, and the mayor’s inability to have the Captain of the Guard replaced.

Berry’s write-up on the Rat Queens tells me that this comic is typical feminist fantasy fare. The comic portrays unbelievable women who enjoy the traits of men and the privilege of women without having to deal with the consequences of their behaviour.

I don’t care whether a fantasy story has minority representation, diversity or women or whatever. I care whether the story is believable. Fantasy stories, especially good stories by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and John C. Wright, are stories about timeless truths. Fantasy stories that do not reflect the truth are failed stories.

Marvel Comics is Dead

An artist strives to frame his ideals in an image, to challenge his audience and make his vision immortal. But the parasite says, “No! Your art must serve the Cause! Your ideals endanger the people!”

-Andrew Ryan, Bioshock 2

When parasites create art, the result is Marvel’s present lineup of comics.

In the last two days, Marvel has produced two pieces of social justice-inspired works. The first casts Gwen Stacey as a sex-flipped Spider-Man, with Donald Trump as the villain. The second has Tony Stark handing over the mantle of Iron Man to 15-year-old  Riri Williams. The virtue signalling is so obvious, it is painful. Couple this with Female Thor, Evil Captain America, and a number of Marvel characters suddenly becoming lesbian, bisexual, gay, black, female or Muslim, and it’s obvious that Marvel has declared its position in the culture war.

The announcement of Black Iron Girl demonstrates comic book logic at its finest. The Iron Man suit has fought supervillains, aliens, mutated superhumans, assassins, magicians, monsters, supersoldiers, and rival suits of power armor. The suit transforms the wearer into a one-man army. In what sane universe is it a good idea for a veteran superhero to hand over the suit to a 15-year-old? How does a teenager somehow possess the judgment to properly use a weapon of mass destruction?

Iron Man, it should be remembered, fights in a staggering number of environments, including densely-packed urban cities. The wearer only has milliseconds to properly identify and engage targets with the appropriate weapon. Firing missiles at the wrong time or the wrong target would blow up a building full of innocents. The suit’s repulsor beams can blow holes through walls and armor; it is extremely easy for an inexperienced user to kill a roomful of civilians instead of a legitimate threat. Even trained soldiers and police officers would find this extremely difficult.

Tony Stark, at least, had the excuse of founding SHIELD and the Avengers, and with those organisations and his inherited wealth, he would have access to superior training and colleagues who could help him develop his skills. And he became Iron Man at 21, when he was a legal adult. As for Williams, her major achievement is somehow reverse-engineering an old Iron Man suit. And because of that, it is somehow acceptable to turn her into a child soldier. Which is illegal by international law, by the way.

None of this, of course, matters to the high priests of diversity. It is far more important to have yet another black female STEM-inclined superhero(ine) than for the story to make sense. Needless to say, Williams will embody the finest traditions of social justice, perhaps even throwing in references to Black Lives Matter, and will either become a Mary Sue or make mistakes so trivial that they can be glossed over.

The American comic book industry is particularly ripe for social justice infiltration and subversion. Many beloved characters have been around for decades: Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Thor, Batman, Captain America, and so on. They have become static archetypes. Instead of character development or introducing new characters, Marvel prefers signing on new artists and writers to introduce ‘fresh’ takes on existing characters, which inevitably leads to Social Justice subversion. This disrespects the audience that previous generations have grown and served, and any publishing company that disrespects the audience is bound for the ash heap of history.

Contrast this with the Japanese manga industry. Virtually every artist creates his own unique stories, characters and worlds. The industry rewards success and punishes failure: artists who enjoy high sales are allowed to continue their career; those who do not are axed, and only very lucky ones are given a second shot. Characters, plots and worlds are not recycled among different artists as a matter of procedure; creators, stories and characters stand or die on their own merits, and characters are either retired or given new story arcs for greater development. There’s also far less blatant politicking and social justice in manga than in American comics.

While Japanese manga generally do not have archetypical characters, in my personal experience the industry as a whole offers richer and deeper stories than anything Marvel has to offer. They also tend to have a faster release schedule. And the very best manga characters become archetypes in their own right: Sailor Moon, Vash, Kusanagi Motoko, Vegeta, and so on.

The Americans have much to learn from the Japanese in the field. Focus on good writing and characters; introduce fresh characters and IPs to explore different themes instead of rehashing old ones; and get rid of the social justice virtue signalling. Art is not a weapon to reinforce a narrative or protect people from dangerous ideas; art is its own end, as the extension of the artist, and to catalyze the audience’s own growth.

The Unmaking of Heroes

I grew up with heroes. Sun Wu Kong, Perseus, Thor (the god not the comic book character), Bellerophon, the Eight Immortals, Justice Bao, Heracles, David. The list goes on and on. As I grew older, I found different kinds of heroes: Kusanagi Makoto, Batman, Okumura Rin, the Punisher, Deunun Knute. And, yes, Captain America.

People need cultural heroes. They want to see the triumph of good over evil, virtue over vice. They want to see the wicked punished and the just rewarded. They want to see brave and resourceful people overcome impossible odds. It’s a universal trait, seen in every culture around the world.

People want to believe. They want to be inspired. By reading of heroes doing great things, they can believe that they, too, can achieve great things. When they see heroes smite the wicked, they can believe that they, too, can be agents of righteousness in the world. When they see heroes outwit, outlast or outtalk the enemy, they can believe that they, too, can achieve such greatness.

Belief in virtue is a powerful thing. From such belief we have Martin Luther King Jr., Chiang Kai Shek, George Washington, the Righteous Among the Nations, Sophie Scholl, the Four Chaplains. The everyday unsung heroes.

Never underestimate the power of belief. Never underestimate the power of stories to inspire greatness.

And so, with a heavy heart, I read of Nick Spencer perverting Captain America, turning him from incorruptible paragon to insidious mole.

The Triumph of the Message

Amidst the Sturm und Drang over the revelation of Captain America being a Hydra agent, one small detail was almost left out: the Red Skull, the leader of Hydra. Here’s what he had to say:

“I have just come from Europe — my homeland, in fact. And do you know what I saw there? It was an invading army. These so-called ‘refugees’ — millions of them — marching across the continent, bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them,” Captain America’s nemesis says. “They attack our women, and bomb our cities. And how do our leaders respond? Do they push them back and enforce the borders, as is our sovereign duty? Of course not. They say, ‘Here, take our food. Take our shelter. Take our way of life, and then take our lives.’ Despicable.”

“Your entire culture is under siege,” Red Skull continues to an American audience. “The principles your country was founded upon lost in the name of ‘tolerance.’ Your religion, your beliefs, your sense of community — all tossed aside like trash. And you cannot even speak out against it, lest you be called a bigot!”

This is the rhetoric of American conservatives, the alt right, and European nationalists. Spencer clearly wants to criticise right-wing ideology in his comic. And he isn’t afraid of how much history he has to pervert.

Hydra’s goal is world domination, to implement a fascist new world order. One would imagine that Red Skull would welcome mass illegal immigration and terrorism. This would undermine borders and faith in national governments, creating the conditions that would allow Hydra to step in. Hydra’s ideal recruits would be people who believe in its dream of a united world, run by ubermenschen like themselves, and are willing to commit terrorism. In all the depictions I have seen, Red Skull does not see himself as an American or a German or a European or anything but the leader of Red Skull — and yet here he speaks like an ultranationalist.

Captain America is a paragon of American virtue. I imagine that by some twisted leap of logic, he must also also be an American ultranationalist zealot.

This story concept is weak. It is inherently flawed. Why would a globalist organisation start spouting nationalist doctrine? Why would an organisation hell-bent on world domination espouse ideas that would further divide the world and make it harder for it to achieve its goals?

Spencer wants to portray Hydra as a right-wing organisation inspired by modern nationalist thought. But he doesn’t understand the international right-wing movement. Right-wing parties want to end immigration — and the crime and terrorism that follows mass illegal immigration — and rebuild their societies. They do not care about world domination or invading other countries; they want to restore the days of glory. While there may be cooperation between nationalists and ultranationalists across borders, they aren’t out to rule the world; they’re out to kick out the outsiders and enforce their national sovereignties. Their alliances are built upon opposition to globalisation and supranational organisations like the European Union. It is logically inconsistent for a terrorist group that aims to unite the world under its rule to support an ideology that would keep the world fractured into sovereign states.

And what if this Hydra is now an ultranationalist organisation? Then the question I must ask is: which nation is it supporting? Why does it have a German leader attempting to recruit Americans? Why would it want to poke its nose into the affairs of other nations? Ultranationalists have a national scope, globalists have a global vision; this Hydra is somehow both nationalist and globalist, a walking contradiction that cannot exist and survive for long. Not in the real world and not in fiction.

I have no doubt that Spencer and his allies intend to resolve this story arc by preaching the triumph of the ideology opposed to nationalism: globalism, tolerance, diversity. The same ideology that Hydra — the original Hydra — would have to embrace to be a world-spanning international terrorist organisation with one vision and one goal.

The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Spencer sacrificed story logic on the altar of politics. No doubt the ‘revelation’ of Captain America’s secret betrayal would generate international controversy — which would ideally push sales — but the story is doomed from the start. Hydra is the core of this story, and Hydra is not logically consistent. If the core of the story cannot hold, the rest of it must fall. Such is the fruit of placing message over story.

A Return to Virtue and Glory

Spencer placed message over story, and the story will fail. We have seen this again and again and again, from dishonouring the original Thor (the comic book character) to create a female Thor, Spider-Woman risking her baby to fight crime while pregnant, to lazily inserting self-censored postmodern commentary into the mouth of a Norse god without having the guts to actually articulate these words or explain why the god would care about modern society.

The intellectually honest thing to do would be to create new characters, new antagonists and new franchises. New worlds with internal consistency and the freedom to fully explore ideas and themes without being shackled by established canon or fan expectations. Instead, a number of ‘creators’ chose to subvert existing heroes, and now they chose to turn a hero into a villain.

This is why I stand with Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. Stories must come first; messages mean nothing without strong stories. This is why I stand with the Superversive and Human Wave movements. Stories can be a force for good in this world. These ideas underpin my stories, and if they put me at odds with the world, I am proud to oppose.

Social Justice Warriors wish to end the old age of heroes. Now they are converging on pop culture and twisting the popular heroes of my youth. There is only one solution.

Make new heroes.